It’s funny how this works. During difficult times, it’s always the coach’s fault. When the wins pile up, the focus turns to the players.
When St. John’s was 1-5 in the Big East, Mike Anderson was getting criticized. But now that his team has picked itself off the mat, has won three straight games and four of its last five to stabilize its season, I’m hearing all about Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander, but not Anderson.
The reality is, Anderson and his staff should be first in line. I always say a true judge of a coach is how he handles adverse situations.
The Johnnies were coming off a blowout loss at Creighton. Optimism was only a rumor. Instead of this season cratering as so many have over the last two decades in Queens, he kept his team believing in itself. Now it is just a game out of sixth place in the 11-team league, looking like an NIT team with a realistic chance to extend Anderson’s streak of winning seasons as a head coach to 19.
He suspended mercurial forward Isiah Moore one game for his inability to meet team standards, and Moore has responded, scoring 28 points in the last two games. He remained confident in Vince Cole despite his struggles and Cole is repaying that faith, producing a team-high 18 points in Wednesday night’s win at DePaul. He stayed on Alexander, believing the freshman had more to give offensively, and Alexander has been the team’s best player during this run. Second-leading scorer Greg Williams Jr. has missed the better part of the last three games with a back injury, and other players have emerged, in part due to Anderson’s affinity for going so deep into his bench.
That’s not to say Anderson is without blame. I felt he waited too long to go to big man Josh Roberts, who has keyed the team’s defensive improvements. His substitution patterns have at times been curious. I would still like to see freshman Dylan Addae-Wusu get more minutes.
But at a time everything was pointed in the wrong direction, Anderson was able to navigate this ship to steadier waters. Players clearly respond to him. Right now, this team feels a lot like it did at the end of last year. It’s out-working opponents and finding ways to win. The coach has a lot to do with that.
Below are a few other takeaways from St. John’s recent hot stretch:
St. John’s fans have made a lot of noise about this coaching staff’s recruiting, the inability up to this point to land a top-100 recruit. I think some of it is warranted. Recruiting does need to improve. But by the same token, Champagnie was clearly undervalued. So was Alexander. Both clearly should’ve been top-100 kids. Think about this: in Anderson’s first two classes, he landed the Big East’s current leading scorer in Champagnie and potentially this year’s Freshman of the Year in Alexander. Alexander’s unheralded high school teammate, Addae-Wusu, has been impressive, too. And next year’s class included another potential underrated prospect in Long Island Lutheran guard Rafael Pinzon, a three-star recruit. Rankings don’t always tell the entire story.
There are so many things Alexander does that impresses you on a game-by-game basis. His motor never stops. He’s always looking to make the extra pass. His jumpshot has improved, having hit three-pointers in three straight games now and four of five. But what stands out the most to me is his ability to mix it up in the paint. At a listed 6-foot — he’s really 5-foot-11 or 5-foot-10 — Alexander has an uncanny ability to finish among the trees. He’s also an adept offensive rebounder. His 26 offensive boards are tied for the second most on the team, and he has 10 in the last four games. Just ask Seton Hall junior Jared Rhoden, Alexander’s high school teammate, who recently tweeted: “DIDNT know what passion was until I met this man when I was 15!”
Alexander’s exceptional play has overshadowed the strides Rasheem Dunn has made, but they shouldn’t go unnoticed. He’s playing under control, smart and selfless. With Alexander scoring at a much higher rate, Dunn has maturely taken a back seat, but his production has not been forgotten. The senior has 13 assists and just two turnovers in the last two games. He was a team-high plus-12 against DePaul. In this five-game stretch, Dunn is averaging 8.6 points, 4.8 assists and 2.0 turnovers, and has improved at the free-throw line, making 18-of-19. Also, as Anderson has pointed out, Alexander’s progression doesn’t happen without the tutelage and leadership Dunn has provided.
Here is some cold water for this improved stretch. Three of the wins have come over an underwhelming non-conference opponent (Utah Valley) and two of the weaker teams in the league in DePaul and Butler. UConn was without star James Bouknight. Shot selection was at times poor against DePaul, with the Johnnies attempting 26 three-pointers and making just seven. They were killed on the glass, allowing 20 offensive rebounds, and DePaul did cut a 15-point lead in half. Of course, the Blue Demons were able to win at Marquette and have nearly stolen games from Providence and UConn. Still, the schedule gets tougher, with a trip to Marquette on Sunday followed by Villanova and Providence on the docket next week. St. John’s has to play better if it intends to continue winning.
The announcement of redshirt junior wing David Caraher’s transfer was not unexpected. He had been on leave from the team and had been out of the rotation before that. Still, Caraher will be missed. He was a terrific teammate, model student and all-around good guy, a major part of the family culture Anderson is trying to build.